Category Archives: Film

Murky vs. Mystery – Narrative Lesson in ‘The Counselor’

Murky Clouds photo

Rarely have I been more disappointed in a film than The Counselor, written by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and starring a heavyweight cast of actors that included Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt.

The main issue with the movie is not that the studio refused to release the director’s cut or Scott’s contention that Fox’s prudishness negatively impacted the film. The primary problem boils down to the basics of narrative construction: we did not know what our protagonist, The Counselor, wanted and his decisions, and the consequences from them, had no meaning for the audience. Even worse than a movie being boring is when you don’t care what happens.

Beginning writers often mistake murkiness with mystery. This issue was further compounded in the film when the unnamed Counselor is treated like a character archetype, without the sign posts that the audience needs to feel the universality of the main character’s problems. More blood, sex, and moralistic dialogue cannot fix such a basic problem.

The fact that such a glaring issue of storytelling escaped the attention of an experienced director, writer, cast, and studio demonstrates the importance of writers of all levels to understand and apply the basic narrative building blocks in their own work.

Martin Ott

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Best Movie List – By Year It Was Set

On May 15, my friend writer/producer Eric Bauer placed a challenge on a Straight Dope board asking for people to list the best movie set in every year…not in the year it was made, but in the year it was set. Below, see how far they’ve gotten in just over a week. What fun. Makes me wonder what the novel list would look like.

– Martin Ott

BC One Zillion BC, October 9th – Caveman
BC 66 million Dinosaur
BC 1,000,000 One Million BC
BC 10,000 10,000 BC
BC 4000 The Lord of the Rings
BC 1200 Troy
BC 480 300
BC 326 Sikandar (1941)
BC 261 Asoka
BC 227 The Emperor and the Assassin
BC 216 Hannibal
BC 72 Spartacus
BC 48 Caesar and Cleopatra
BC 44 Julius Caesar
BC 30 Cleopatra
33 Life of Brian / The Passion of the Christ
40 Caligula
68 Quo Vadis
70 The Last Days of Pompeii
140 The Eagle
180 Gladiator
208 Red Cliff
450 Attila
460 The Last Legion
467 King Arthur
528 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
709 Outlander
778 Orlando and the Knights of France
859 House of Flying Daggers
922 The Thirteenth Warrior
932 Monty Python and the Holy Grail
984 Dragonheart
1000 Valhalla Rising
1057 Macbeth
1099 El Cid
1170 Becket
1183 The Lion in Winter
1187 Kingdom of Heaven
1194 Ivanhoe
1199 Robin Hood (2010)
1210 Brother Sun Sister Moon
1215 Ironclad
1242 Alexander Nevsky
1298 Braveheart
1327 The Name of the Rose
1344 Season of the Witch
1348 Black Death
1349 The Seventh Seal
1389 Battle of Kosovo
1415 Henry V
1424 Andrei Rublev
1431 The Passion of Joan of Arc
1448 The Divine Weapon
1482 The Hunchback of Notre Dame
1485 Richard III
1492 1492: Conquest of Paradise
1517 Apocalypto
1533 The Royal Hunt of the Sun
1535 A Man for All Seasons
1536 Anne of the Thousand Days
1547 Crossed Swords
1553 Lady Jane
1558 Elizabeth (1998)
1560 Aguirre: The Wrath of God
1575 Kagemusha
1588 Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
1594 How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman
1597 Shakespeare in Love
1601 The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
1607 The New World
1616 Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
1625 The Three Musketeers
1630 Hara-kiri
1634 Black Robe / The Devils
1665 Girl with a Pearl Earring
1667 The Scarlet Letter
1685 Lorna Doone / Captain Blood
1692 The Crucible
1699 Captain Kidd
1712 Rob Roy
1718 Swashbuckler
1756 The Mission
1757 The Last of the Mohicans
1776 1776
1779 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
1787 Robinson Crusoe
1788 The Madness of King George
1789 Mutiny on the Bounty
1791 That Night in Varennes
1792 A Tale of Two Cities
1793 Marie Antoinette
1794 Danton
1798 The Wild Child
1799 The Marquise of O / Sleepy Hollow
1805 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
1808 The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade
1813 Swiss Family Robinson
1815 Waterloo
1816 Gothic
1827 Children of Paradise
1828 The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
1829 The Count of Monte Cristo
1831 Under Capricorn
1832 Les Miserables
1836 The Alamo
1841 Amistad
1854 The Charge of the Light Brigade
1856 The Chess Players (Shatranj Ke Khilari)
1857 Mangal Pandey: The Rising
1858 Django Unchained
1860 The Pony Express
1862 The General
1863 Gettysburg / Glory / Her MajestyMrs. Brown
1864 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly / Cold Mountain
1865 Lincoln
1866 Red River
1867 Juarez
1868 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
1869 Union Pacific
1871 In Old Chicago / La commune
1872 Around the World in 80 Days
1873 Cowboys and Aliens
1874 Blazing Saddles
1875 The Story of Alexander Graham Bell
1876 She Wore a Yellow Ribbon / The Molly Maguires
1877 The Last Samurai
1878 Cheyenne Autumn
1879 Zulu
1880 Stagecoach / True Grit (2012)
1881 Tombstone
1882 The Man Who Would Be King
1883 Krakatoa, East of Java
1884 3:10 to Yuma
1885 Topsy Turvy / Back to the Future III / The Oxbow Incident
1886 Geronimo: An American Legend
1888 From Hell
1889 Mayerling
1890 Hello, Dolly!
1891 Sherlock Holmes (2009)
1892 Heaven’s Gate
1893 Far and Away / Lagaan
1895 The Four Feathers
1896 The Far Country
1897 The Gold Rush
1898 A Message to Garcia
1899 The Prestige / Newsies
1900 Picnic at Hanging Rock
1901 The Shootist
1902 Breaker Morant
1903 Tom Horn
1904 Meet Me in St. Louis
1905 Battleship Potemkin
1906 Ragtime
1907 Viva Maria!
1908 Take Me Out To The Ball Game / The Great Race
1909 Fanny and Alexander
1910 Mary Poppins
1911 1911
1912 Titanic
1913 The Wild Bunch
1914 The African Queen
1915 Gallipoli
1916 Paths of Glory
1917 Lawrence of Arabia
1918 War Horse / 1918: All Quiet On the Western Front (1930)
1919 Eight Men Out
1920 Matewan
1921 Sunrise at Campobello
1922 The Great Gatsby / Thoroughly Modern Millie
1923: The Hours
1924 Chariots of Fire
1925 Inherit the Wind
1926 The Sand Pebbles
1927 Singin’ in the Rain
1928 The Artist / Bullets Over Broadway
1929 Some Like It Hot
1930 Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale
1931 Cabaret
1932 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
1933 Sounder
1934 Pennies from Heaven / Bonnie and Clyde / Victor Victoria
1935 The King’s Speech / To Kill a Mockingbird
1936 Raiders of the Lost Ark / The Sting
1937 Chinatown / Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?
1938 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade / Seabiscuit
1939 To Be or Not to Be (the original) / The Natural / Hyde Park on Hudson
1940 The Spirit of the Beehive / The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe / Atonement
1941 Tora! Tora! Tora! / From Here toEternity
1942 Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo / Summer of ’42
1943 Come and See / A League of Their Own / The Guns of Navarone
1944 Saving Private Ryan / A Bridge Too Far / Pan’s Labyrinth / The Longest Day / Au Revoir Les Enfants /
Inglorious Basterds
1945 Schindler’s List / Empire of Sun / Downfall
1946 The Godfather / The Black Stallion
1947 42 / Tucker: A Man and His Dream / Judgement at Nuremburg
1948 Devil in a Blue Dress / Exodus
1949 The Man Who Wasn’t There
1950 Men in War / Snow Falling on Cedars
1951 The Last Picture Show / Mash
1952 Hoosiers
1953 L.A. Confidential / Heavenly Creatures
1954 My Favorite Year / Heavenly Creatures
1955 Back to the Future
1956 The Polar Express
1957 The Battle of Algiers / Far From Heaven
1958 The Godfather Part II / Lords of Flatbush
1959 Diner / Stand By Me / Dead Poets Society
1960 Grease
1961 61*
1962 American Graffiti / Animal House / Thirteen Days
1963 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1964 Mississippi Burning
1965 Moonrise Kingdom / The Outsiders / Year of Living Dangerously
1966 JFK / Casualties of War / The Hurricane
1967 Platoon
1968 The Unbearable Lightness of Being / A Bronx Tale
1969 Taking Woodstock / Awakenings
1970 Apollo 13 / Apocalypse Now
1971 Remember the Titans
1972 All the President’s Men / Dog Day Afternoon
1973 Ratcatcher / Almost Famous / The Lovely Bones / Secretariat / The Ice Storm
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy / Dick
1975 The Deer Hunter
1976 Dazed and Confused
1977 Summer of Sam
1978 Lords of Dogtown
1979 Argo / Super 8
1980 No Country for Old Men
1981 Wet Hot American Summer / Let the Right One In
1982 Waltz with Bashir / Son of Rambow
1983 Stand and Deliver / This Is England
1984 1984 / Billy Elliot
1985 The Wedding Singer / SLC Punk!
1986 The Squid and the Whale
1987 Fargo
1988 Donnie Darko / For Queen and Country
1989 Buffalo Soldiers
1990 Rent
1991 The Big Lebowski / Courage Under Fire / Three Kings
1992 Primary Colors
1993 Black Hawk Down
1994 Hotel Rwanda
1995 Invictus / The Insider
1996 Spinning Boris
1997 Amélie
1998 Escape from New York
1999 Strange Days
2000 Death Race 2000
2001 2001: A Space Odyssey / World Trade Center / Flight 93
2002 Moneyball
2003 127 Hours
2004 The Hurt Locker
2005 Transformers: the Movie (1986)
2006 Slumdog Millionaire
2007 Double Dragon
2008 Game Change
2009 Freejack
2010 2010: The Year We Make Contact
2011 Zero Dark Thirty
2012 I Am Legend
2013 The Postman
2015 Back to the Future
II / Robocop
2018 Rollerball (1975)
2019 Blade Runner
2020 V for Vendetta
2022 Soylent Green
2025 Repo Men
2026 Metropolis
2027 Children of Men
2032 Demolition Man
2035 I, Robot / Twelve Monkeys
2044 Looper
2054 Minority Report
2056 Red Planet
2057 Sunshine
2063 Star Trek: First Contact
2078 Screamers
2084 Total Recall (the original)
2093 Prometheus
2122 Alien
2139 Judge Dredd
2150 Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.
2151 Vanilla Sky
2160 Avatar
2173 Sleeper
2179 Aliens
2199 The Matrix
2214 The Fifth Element
2220 Forbidden Planet
2259 Star Trek: Into Darkness
2274 Logan’s Run
2279 Star Trek: The Motion Picture
2285 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan / Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
2287 Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
2293 Zardoz / Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
2371 Star Trek Generations
2373 Star Trek: First Contact
2375 Star Trek: Insurrection
2379 Star Trek: Nemesis
2491 Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
2500 Waterworld
2505 Idiocracy
2517 Serenity
2592 Riddick
2805 Wall-E
3000 3000 A.D. (aka Captive Women)
3978 Planet of the Apes (1968)
5021 Planet of the Apes (2001)
12090 Vampire Hunter D
40000 Barbarella
802,701 The Time Machine (2002)

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Writeliving Interview: Marge Piercy

We’re proud to present an interview with groundbreaking novelist, poet and memoirist Marge Piercy. Woman on the Edge of Time made an impression on me when I read it in my teens, and Gone to Soldiers later challenged my thinking about what women and men should and could write about.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Influences are a matter of adolescence and early adulthood. After that, if you’re real, you’re on your own path. American prosody comes from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and that’s where I started. I read widely and had an excellent education in British and Irish literature in the Honors program at the University of Michigan and in grad school at Northwestern. In the latter, I began an intensive exploration of American literature which I continued after I left to work.

Allen Ginsberg opened my eyes to the possibility of writing far more directly and emotionally out of my own experience and politics than I had been led to believe was something that could be done.

I’d say the news is a far more extensive influence on me, the economy, what happens to people I know or don’t know but feel for than any “influence” of the sort you mean. I’m not in the academy but out in the regular world. At the moment about half my town is out of electricity from the snow hurricane – people without heat or water. NSTAR seems in no hurry to get them back up. I just wrote a poem about that. That’s my influence of the moment.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

My creative process is to sit down at the computer and work. I write most days I am not on the road for gigs. More ideas swarm in me than I can get to before they evaporate. I write. I read aloud. My cats approve but often I don’t. I revise. I try again. I revise again. I turn the poem about trying different line breaks, verse paragraph or stanza breaks, beginnings, endings. I look at my imagery with a cold eye. I put the title through several revisions, usually. The first time I perform the poem, I find the weak spots and go home and rewrite again.

How does writing both fiction and poetry impact the other genre?

There’s very little cross over between the fiction and the poetry. Generally an idea comes with the genre attached. One exception happened recently when I jotted notes while I was doing a miniresidency. I thought it would be a poem. Then when I sat down to write it, it became an essay instead. It was just too prosy and diffuse to be a poem, but it was something I wanted to write about. “Gentrification and its discontents.”

The other exception is when I am doing research for a novel or nonfiction, often I experience things that produce poetry. They are about our experiences during research and have no direct connection with the prose work. Examples: Slides from my recent European trip in Available Light; the poem “The happy man” in The Hunger Moon.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

I left graduate school and worked part time living in a slum apartment in Chicago in order to write what I needed to. Staying in academia was stifling my poetry and fiction. It was a hard life. I dressed from rummage sales, ate whatever was cheap, dealt with the experience that nobody but me took me seriously as a writer. That went on for some years. I could not publish serious fiction about being a woman at that time. My poetry got published long before my fiction could. The world had to change from women’s liberation before I could break through with my fiction beyond an occasional short story. I could not make a living from my writing until I was 32. I have done so ever since.

What project(s) are you working on now?

I have a contract with PM Press for a book of short stories. Some of them I wrote years ago, but once I had the contract, I began writing new ones. I’ve written eight so far and hope to write a couple more before the book is due. I have been sending them out and getting them into various zines. I am enjoying working on short fiction very much. It feels good to get back into a genre after two decades away from it.

My agent has a new novel I completed just before I started writing short stories.

I am writing a lot of poetry, as usual.

As I said, I wrote an essay two weeks ago. I am not sure what to do with it.  Usually I only write essays when approached to do so.  Haven’t figured out where to send it.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I am an avid gardener. Ira Wood and I grow almost all our own vegetables (exceptions being red onions, avocados, artichokes) and bush fruit, sour cherries and pears. I freeze, dry, can. Put up enough paste tomatoes & 4 kinds of tomato sauce so we never have to buy any. I planted what has become a rhododendron forest years ago. Many beautiful trees. A rose garden (no hybrid teas; no bushes requiring poisons) – I actually know a lot about roses and freely give advice. Lots of daylilies. Very few annuals except marigolds & sunflowers that I start from seed. I actually start almost everything we grow from seed, except perennials. Our ornamental gardens are like British cottage gardens, a mix of perennials and bushes. I grow lots of herbs for cooking and medicinal uses.

I’m a very good cook. These days I mostly cook Mediterranean – all the way around.  Provencal, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Middle Eastern, Moroccan. The exception is on the Jewish holidays when I do some traditional Ashkenazi dishes as well as Sephardic and Mitzraki. For over thirty years, I have conducted a Seder for friends and now into the third generation. I update my Haggadah a bit every year and do most of the cooking. We no longer hold it in our dining room as we only have room for fifteen and it has grown far beyond that.

I find that gardening and cooking make a good accompaniment to writing. The rewards are physical and it’s good to do something besides sit on my ass in front of a computer.

About the Author


Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including The New York Times Bestseller Gone To Soldiers; the National Bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women, and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time; eighteen volumes of poetry including The Hunger Moon and The Moon is Always Female, and a critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in some of the major progressive battles of our time, including the anti-Vietnam war and the women’s movement, and more recently an active participant in the resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Life’s a Pitch – The Downey Files

The Chris Downey Project

The Downey Files

Not long ago, TV writer and good friend Jill Condon passed on a podcast link to me about the Hollywood creative process: The Downey Files.

The concept is that writer and producer Chris Downey  is cleaning out his drawers of old pitch ideas written on cocktail napkins and takeout menus, and inviting other guest writers to join him in developing these concepts.

While the concept itself is tongue-in-cheek – some of those ideas are in a drawer for a reason – you get to hear talented, professional writers develop ideas from pitches into mini-treatments.

As someone who has done this process with four different screenwriting partners over the years, it is fun to listen in on others and how they approach the elements of theme, character, and story.

Even better, Chris and his guests have wit and imagination, and this series has shot up to the top of the list of favorite podcasts.

Check out The Downey Files – it’s better than just about everything you’re watching on TV or at the movies, and it’s especially fun for writers.

– Martin Ott

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My Video Journeys

Last night, I ran into my favorite video store Video Journeys in Silverlake to return a movie. As is often the case, I ended up in a conversation with one of the knowledgeable staff about the research I was doing for my rewrite of a Mississippi River adventure, and how few movies follow treks down river.

I walked out of the store with a copy of the under-rated The River Wild (good dialogue and a strong performance by Meryl Streep) as well as an even deeper appreciation for a small business that is fighting for its existence in the world of Netflix, Hulu and Redbox.

I first visited this store nearly twenty years before (when I still lived in San Francisco) visiting my friend Andy. We’d drive all the way from The Brewery in Lincoln Heights to browse through a seemingly endless selection of independent, foreign and animated films.

Before social media, this was the place local film nerds and movie buffs congregated, and I find myself wondering about how long it can fight to stay in business (recently it downsized to a space half its previous size).

As writers, we value these independent venues, but are sometimes just as lazy as others in getting our entertainment digitally. Who would have ever thought we would ever be able to stuff so much art in our pockets, and the impact to some of institutions: book stores, libraries, local theaters and video stores?

Before traveling to other countries, I have a longstanding habit to visit Video Journeys to rent films from the place I will be visiting, and I find myself hoping that this is something I will be able to do for another twenty (or more) years.

Martin Ott

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The Slush Pile

Recently my longtime writing partner Keith Kowalczyk and I were able to find a new manager for our project Twain – Ken Atchity at AEI Entertainment.

We’d pitched the project by email and feel lucky to be working with someone who is giving us great notes for our next draft.

Two years before, we filmed a short film about a Slush Pile that gets so fed up from not being read that it devours everything in its path. It feels good to have escaped this monster:

Martin Ott

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Crazy Stuff You’ve Done – Grist for Writing

I got a call last week from a producer interested in potentially developing a screenplay I’d sent him – “Twain” – based on the idea of two brothers rafting down the Mississippi River for very different reasons. It turns out that the producer had grown up on the Mississippi River, and had a similar dream as the protagonist to raft down river with a family member starting at the headwaters.

This screenplay was co-written with Keith Kowalczyk (we met while at the MPW Program at USC). I shared with the producer how Keith had attempted to build a raft by hand – inspired by his love of Mark Twain – in an attempt to travel the length of the Mississippi River.

While Keith’s raft may have sunk almost immediately, the story had stuck with me a long time and I had suggested it as the basis for our next collaboration. Yes, Keith readily admits that it was crazy to try what he did, but he had been driven by a passion that carried a broader resonance.

There have been periods in my life where I did a whole bunch of idiotic stuff, and I find myself reimagining these experiences and placing them in the streams and tributaries of my own writing. These can include impetuous trips and friendships, unwise personal decisions and relationships, and the bizarre things you find yourself occasionally saying or doing. Of course, there is a whole lot of crazy that comes to us naturally in the forms of our families.

As far as the phone call, I’ve learned from experience not to have any expectations in the process of pitching and finalizing creative work. What I can take from my conversation, however, is a reaffirmed belief in the value of tapping into the crazy stuff you’ve done in the writing life.

Martin Ott

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